September 2009 Auto Sales

It was good while it lasted. The free money flowing out of the cash-for-clunkers spigot proved to be an even better party starter than its architects dreamed it would be, but it couldn’t last forever. Everyone knew that September was going to bring on one bad hangover once the keg of rebate cash sputtered and died toward the end of August. However, it was probably time to hang it up anyway, as most clunkers-eligible would-be buyers had already been pulled in off the sidelines, and many dealers’ showrooms were bare.

So, after a giddy couple of months, the September auto sales rate collapsed in a heap onto the confetti-strewn floor, returning to the lows of earlier this year. What’s interesting is that all of the major manufacturers were hit hard. Of course, they all participated in the clunkers frenzy, so the September fall-off was a natural byproduct.

Conversely, those nameplates that were not clunkers-eligible — mostly the high-end luxury marques — saw little or no decline from August. So things aren’t really getting worse, they’ve just returned to the new normal. Unfortunately, the new normal stinks.

September versus August sales, percent change [Source: Automotive News]

The Big Asians had a bigger hangover than the domestics.
Toyota -44%The September sales drop-offs were proportional to each model’s clunkers-cash eligibility. So the Lexus division (-22%) fared best, and in fact was ahead of last year thanks to the new RX and the addition of the HS250 hybrid. Scion (-66%) did the worst and has been suffering for a while now. The Toyota division (-44%) was in the middle. Similarly, on the truck side, sales of non-clunkers-eligible fat boys like the Sequoia (+45%) and the Land Cruiser (+16%) were up over August, while clunkers-cash recipients such as the RAV4 (-43%), the Highlander (-51%), and the Tacoma (-40%) fell hard.

Honda -52%Honda’s clunkers darlings did not fare well in September. The Accord saw its sales cut in half (-48%), while the Civic fell nearly two-thirds (-63%) and the Fit dropped three-quarters (-76%). Acura fared better overall and had Honda’s only two vehicles in positive territory: the RDX (+3%) and the RL (+1%).

Nissan -47%As was typical for September, Nissan’s luxury division, Infiniti (-15%), fared better than its mainstream one, Nissan (-50%). The biggest gas-guzzlers were able to improve upon their (admittedly pathetic) August performance: QX56 (+11%), Armada (+30%), Titan (+24%), Pathfinder (+9%), GT-R (+11%). The Maxima (+30%) also powered ahead.

Hyundai/Kia -47%Hyundai/Kia sales were so inflated during the clunkers boom that, even though they were cut nearly in half in September, they were still far above year-ago levels (Hyundai +27%, Kia +24% compared to last year). A handful of other brands also beat their September ’08 figures, but none by as great a margin as the Korean wonder twins. Even with massive drops compared to August, the Accent (-52%) and the Elantra (-65%) are still strong, as are the Genesis (-28%) and the Optima (-20%).

General Motors -37%GM’s situation was not as bad in September as many media reported. While its 45% sales plunge versus last year is pretty hideous, those 2008 figures were inflated thanks to the employee pricing incentive (remember that one?). And let’s not forget the fact that last year, only the Hummer division was on the block. This year, Hummer and Saab are sold, and Pontiac is a dead man walking (Saturn is, too, but that news didn’t come out until very recently). Looking only at the continuing brands, Buick (+10%) did pretty well to post a gain over August, and Cadillac (+64%) roared ahead on the strength of the new SRX, the CTS, and the DTS (curious, that last one). At Chevrolet (-41%), the Suburban/Tahoe were up and the new Equinox (-48%), despite a big post-clunkers swoon, is selling at twice the rate of the old one. GMC‘s decline (-21%) was cushioned by the arrival of the Terrain.

Ford -37%Ford looks good compared to a miserable 2008 (-5% versus last year’s September figures), but it’s feeling the same clunkers hangover as the other domestics. Volvo, down from August (-19%) but doing better than last year, is a bright spot, thanks mostly to the S40 and the V50. With the clunkers madness over, geezers evidently got over their trepidation of entering a dealership and gave the Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car a big month. The Taurus (+49%) is also doing well.

Chrysler -33%As was the case elsewhere, the severity of the Chrysler divisions’ September drop-offs increased in proportion to their clunkers exposure. Jeep (-22%), therefore, didn’t do too bad. The Compass was all but sold out, while Wrangler and Commander sales actually increased a bit. Dodge (-32%) was in the middle, with the Challenger and the Charger moving ahead but the Caliber (naturally) dropping precipitously. Chrysler (-51%) fell hardest, and, more worrisome, the drop-off is even greater compared to year-ago levels. Chrysler’s big winner in September was the long-ago-canceled Crossfire (+647%), which apparently dealers discovered forgotten in the far corners of their lots once all the unsold PT Cruisers and Sebrings got blown out of there.

Those who weren’t invited to the cash-for-clunkers party didn’t suffer any bad aftereffects when it ended.
Mercedes-Benz -1%Jaguar +1%Maserati +2%Porsche +4%Bentley +30%

And in the rarefied very top of the market, stability reigns.
Maybach 8 cars sold, same as AugustRolls-Royce 30 cars sold, same as AugustLamborghini 34 cars sold, same as AugustAston Martin 95 cars sold, same as AugustFerrari 105 cars sold, same as AugustLotus 150 cars sold, same as AugustSaab 484 cars sold, same as August
(Okay, maybe Saab doesn’t belong in this company. But at least maybe the brand has no further to fall.)

THE TOP 5 BESTSELLING VEHICLES (and rank last month)

  1. Ford F-series 33,877 (up from #2)
  2. 25,745 (down from #1)
  3. 20,826 (up from #5)
  4. /Matrix 20,741 (same)
  5. Chevrolet Silverado 19,401 (up from #6)

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